Power Outage, Is Your Community Ready?

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This week we are talking to Michael Cockrell about the power company’s (California) Public Safety Power Shutoff. The issue is that how do we prepare the public for these events? How do who is responsible for the losses associated with the power shutoff? What about the infirm that need power to live? Michael brings his expertise and research to this important topic.

Michael Cockrell:              If you have solar power in your house, that doesn’t mean that that solar power was going to be available if there’s a public safety power shutoff because most solar systems are connected into your panel, your house.

Todd De Voe:     Hi and welcome to EM Weekly, your emergency management podcast. And this is your host Todd De Voe. And this week we are talking about the public safety power shut off and we’ll get into what that means a little bit later, but in light of the power failure that happened in New York City and they said that there was most likely going to be two or three more power outages like that in the city this year due to the heat. You know, let’s talk a little bit about power. I know that we’ve had Michael Maybee on before to talk about the grid. We’re going to try and get him back on the show again to talk more about the vulnerabilities of the grid and what that means for us. And we need to talk about it as emergency managers. You know, how do we deal with large scale power outages? And it’s more than just, you know, people losing their ice cream in their freezer. Right. Some people are on respirators and things like that. So let’s get into it and let’s welcome Michael Cockerell to the show now onto the interview.

Todd De Voe:     Michael, welcome to EM Weekly.

Michael Cockrell:              Thank you. It was nice to be able to do this.

Todd De Voe:     So, if you aren’t in California, you might not know about this, but California is. Specifically, PG&E started it. And then I know that, um, southern California Edison is doing it as well. We have this thing called the public safety power shutoff. It’s kind of hard to say sometimes. And the idea behind it is when the winds come up, and the humidity index is at the right place where we call a red flag warning, they’re going to go ahead and shut power off because, well, northern California had a few fires in central California, had a few fires and southern California, had a few fires that were indicated that it was started by electrical issues. So, Michael has done a whole series and we’ll, we’ll put the links to it, um, on the public safety power shutoff. So, Michael, tell me a little bit about what is this, and how does it affect emergency management?

Michael Cockrell:              Well as you mentioned, there were several, of the major energy companies in California got together and they’re all facing the same kind of issues, uh, being sued if there was a fire and maybe one of their transmission lines or poles caused it. So it was San Diego Gas and electric southern California Edison and Pacific Gas Electric Company that, as we know a PG&E, Pacific Gas and Electric area in northern California, it’s mostly PG&E, but get down into southern California or central California. Didn’t the other two come into play? And they decided rather try to have their own criteria’s through their own, even though they are doing their own outreach, but do some kind of a consolidated effort on, handouts and, and tips for businesses, tips for the residents on what to follow. And the intent was to, if, if the conditions, came up that fit their criteria, then they would try to limit the area that was to be turned off.

Michael Cockrell:              But if it was going to threaten the whole grid and they may have to do a major shutdown that could affect much of the state, not just PG&E. And that’s uh, where they’re at. Uh, uh, they did do this, and that was one of the issues, uh, that PG&E who tries to stress that they will try to give 24 to 48 hours warning, but they won’t attempt it. And then what happened June 7th, up in the town of Winters, it’s north of Sacramento. They decide they need to do shut down the power around a lake called Lake Berryessa. By the time they got to notify the counties and got maps put together, it was about 10 o’clock at night, 6:30 in the next morning, they shut down. So you can’t be guaranteed. You’ll get that much warning. That’s what their goal is.

Michael Cockrell:              And the, the criteria, they use your, right on some of them, but the national weather service is one, their main criteria are red flag warning. And that’s a combination of humilities and sustained winds. And they have this grid where they tried to figure out, okay, what the wind pattern is, how much humidity and they, they decide where they do a red flag warning. But the utilities also look at, forecasted sustained winds for themselves. dry fuel, actual observations. More and more of them are starting to put their own cameras out or have people out in the field. Then they have their field crews, then they can decide on whether to shut it down. But they do try to keep it as minimum area as possible.

Todd De Voe:     So, a couple of things on that. One is, is I know the hospitals, and other critical infrastructure places like this are supposed to have an emergency backup, right? So, your long-term care facilities, hospitals, some schools will have emergency backup power. That is, but what about those homes such as group homes, or individuals that are the have a critical, life, devices that are there as well? How do they prepare for, or do they even know that when the shutoff goes down, they might lose power where they’re sustaining life with that, like oxygen for instance, or, breathing machines.

Michael Cockrell:              Well, that’s a good question. We actually ran into the Sunday’s issues back we were leading up to the year 2000. Turnover is who needs power. And that was one of the main concerns is that your main hospitals may have power, but allow the secondary, care homes, rehab homes, et cetera. Now, are they prepared for that? And more and more of those are then you have the homebound person. One of the big issues that have been coming up as what about, people were at home under hospice. You can’t just pack them up. And if there’s a 24-hour notice from the utilities saying we’re going to shut power off, are they ready? And what we tried to address in the Year 2k planning, which is this is something for emerging managers to think about now is, is having those home care providers make sure they contact their clients to see if they need, extra batteries.

Michael Cockrell:              Do they know where to go in their community if the power goes off and they do have batteries charged or replaced. We used to do that in San Mateo County twice a year, coming into winter and going into summer is check with the fire stations in the cities who has a place that these people go to just to get a little bit of help, you know, like again, charging up a battery or something like that. So that’s a big effort that jurisdictions should be, addressing right now is those home provider companies, are they checking with their clients? Does your public health, your environmental health, or your behavioral health, they have their own client base? Are they contacting these people to see are they ready and what their needs maybe? Some cities and counties are actually making up lists of people who call and say, hey, if there’s a power outage, I am going to need help. And some cities are actually going to, be aggressive about it and go out and actually contacted people kind of like a vacation check or a health and safety check to make sure are you okay?

Todd De Voe:     So there’s a cost associated with that for the city to do those vacation checks, health checks, helping out with the batteries, if you will, with people that are, that need to have that help. Right. And Are we able to, bill back to the power companies for those things that we’re doing for them because their customers no longer have power?

Michael Cockrell:              Well, PG&E is making a very clear from the outset that they’re not going to be responsible for, spoiled foods and the consequences of a power outage. Their goal is to protect the grid, to make sure there are no fires. That’s what they fail. They fail to give enough warning out there. They’re going out and having community meetings with people to try to encourage people to be ready. If they feel that, they’re going to be impacted to pre-plan a place to go, you may have to go into another county, to get away from these outages. And again, those people who don’t have any transportation, they’re low, very, very low income. They may not know anybody, no family members, those are the ones that are easy can fall through the cracks, but I haven’t heard any utilities saying that we will reimburse you for the excess costs it takes for you to prepare. And again, going back to the year 2K and send me to the other’s past disasters we should have already addressed them at these issues, you know, so that won’t be such a big, big step that we’ll have to do to jump into an outage.

Todd De Voe:     I was having a conversation with a group of people in a little preparedness, event that they were doing and asked me to come to speak. And we got into the conversation regarding generators and, and somebody asked if we should have generators. And I said, of course, you should. That’s a good thing. It’s a good thing to be prepared. Generators can keep your refrigerator going, you know, things like this. And kind of got into the conversation regarding what size and whatnot. And then one of the participants asked me, Oh, should I, have a bunch of fuel gas, stored in my garage. I’m like, well, I don’t recommend that. And they’re like, well, where should we keep the fuel? , there’s this huge conversation of how much fuel they should have on hand and what’s the storage of it and can you stabilize it? And I started thinking at that point going, so we’re now going to ask people to have electric generators in their homes or around their homes with long-term fuel storage, you know, and, and how dangerous is that compared to, not having that stuff? Do you know what I mean?

Michael Cockrell:              Yeah. That is the main concern. Matter of fact, the, in part one of our, our power shut off videos. We went up to the Town of Winters who was just outside of the outage area, and that’s what he was getting people coming in asking for by generators. And he was trying to steer him to the right gauge of wire. If you’re going to plug your generator with an extension cord to run into your house, the proper type of storage container, you know, some vent, some don’t be careful that it’s in the shade somewhere. If it’s in the garage, you know, you’ve got power, pilot lights in your water heater. It’s a really, really serious step to buy a generator store fuel. Yeah. Some fire departments are saying they don’t want that. You know, they don’t want more homes now being at a higher threat because you get into Summertime you get this expansion of the storage containers.

Michael Cockrell:              The other bad thing about generators, I happen to have two myself, you’ve got to test them. it’s like an alarm, or if you don’t start it occasionally, you got to be out there cranking it. Or if it’s a Key start, your battery is going to be dead. So you have to know how to turn it on. Now if you do have a generator, there’s a little work to be done. I developed a little stat cheat and a shutdown, sheet so that my wife can turn on or off if I’m not here. so testing it the right size. if you got to know how much draw that generators, if you buy a 2000-watt generator or three, you’ve got to know when do you meet that, that maximum, how much is your refrigerator going to run, your freezer, your microwave, or lights?

Michael Cockrell:              So that’s something that somebody should consider. You can actually, well, I actually bought a little piece of equipment called a kilowatt. You can plug it into your, your appliance and into the wall and it tells you how much it’s drawn. So you can actually come up a little spreadsheet saying, okay, I have a three in a 2000 watt generator. I can do this up to the point where I’m exceeding my generator, and they didn’t. How do you get that power into your house? You got to make sure it’s not by a door that can vent gas into your house. To me, again, I’m a little bit more extreme. We developed a path through a portal, through the wall so I can run a generator , of the right gauge extension cord into the house and then feed off, extenuation cords to those minimum things that we want to run.

Michael Cockrell:              The other concern about those generators, if you have it connected to your house, your local utilities wants to make sure that they come and check that to make sure it was installed correctly. If you pass a cable through your house, you know, you’ve got a window that’s unlocked, you know, what’s the safety, for that. So, having a generator is a serious step again, testing it, storing of fuel, buying the right size, extension cords. So you don’t overheat the extension cord and, and then have a text with the utilities or your, your city just to make sure you connected that right. And your neighbors will probably want to borrow off of that.

Todd De Voe:     Right. how do we tell the residents in our cities to say, get a generator but I don’t recommend you using it properly and unless you know how to use it properly, and then it goes back to the costly expense, right? I mean, you can go get a great solar system and use the Tesla Wall that will run your house, but who can afford that? Or you could do wind turbine generators. There are all these things that you could do for alternative electricity here in California specifically. I, it might be harder in other parts of the country to do it because of snow, you know? But I don’t, it’s hard for me to go to a community event and recommend somebody spending $60,000 on a solar power system. You know, when some of these people can’t even afford, you know, to keep their refrigerator full of milk.

Michael Cockrell:              Well, you brought up a good point, and that’s something that we were checking out. for our story. If you have solar power in your house, that doesn’t mean that that solar power was going to be available if there’s a public safety power shut off, because most solar systems are connected into your panel, your house. And yet the idea is that you can sell this extra solar power to the utilities if you’re not using it. Well, if the power shut off, those, the panels are meant to shut off everything. So you may not have any access to your solar power if there’s a public safety power shutoff. So, we’ve talked to some of the solar companies, and because of this potential, the solar companies are getting customers calling saying, hey, can my solar power system be retrofitted so that there’s an extension cord plugin that I could maybe get some of that solar power off my roof.

Michael Cockrell:              they now they make a, instead of a gas generator or diesel generator, I’ve seen some battery solar systems, you know, almost like a generator. You can roll it out to your backyard, pop these panels open and get the power that way. Those are made more for like an RVs, traveling and stuff. But, people are starting to buy those. The one advantage we see also is some of these hardware stores that are selling generators. I’ve actually heard some of them ask the people, what are you going to use this for? If it’s for these power things, you know, they’re giving us some discussion on the right gas can, the right type of extension cord. So that’s one thing is to try to get the sellers to be very clear with that person buying it you know, this investment a, this is how you properly use it, but you are talking thousands of dollars.

Todd De Voe:     Yeah. And we need to do a better job talking to our residents as emergency managers that they look up to when we go out and speak. We probably should have some information and understand that process. Take a look at. The videos are really good. He does a great job. What can we do, be prepared for these things? Some of them are really frightened about what this means. What can we do, not just to plan for it? You know, we all have power shutoff plans, power outage plans, right? We’re going to activate those. But what can we do to help the public be ready for these events?

Michael Cockrell:              Well, you brought up a good point about how we do try periodically, and we’ve tried to use all the different year-round campaigns, whether it’s winter awareness, summer awareness, uh, the earthquake, uh, safety days, the California Flood Awareness Week, uh, even Miskito awareness week. They tried to keep that topic out there. You know, we, we know that, uh, the generator is a unique thing for this particular emergency, but it really is those, those basics. And, uh, most of our, uh, planning and discusses with the public is having an emergency kit to run out the door in case there’s an earthquake or houses on fire. But these type of situations isn’t that, you know, so your emergency kit needs to be configured a little bit more, one for being in your house or two to five days without power. So it’s a constant outreach. There’s no way of doing it for once.

Michael Cockrell:              People are angry also about these, safety shutoffs, potentials. So, one thing we can do is community awareness meetings. we talk about, CERT those, organizations can now actually help also on outreach, maybe be involved with, your city or county to identify that need is. Homes that, may need to be reached out. But it’s, it’s a constant outreach, I think, uh, for emergency managers. We’re so into high tech now. we have the social media sites we want people to check-in and, we want them to sign up for our local warning systems on their cell phones. But like this, like Berryessa in Winter on June 7th, they’re out of cell range. They’re up in the hills, out the delta. there are areas where there’s no cell phone.

Michael Cockrell:              I think we’ve, we’ve stepped away too much from pushing am and FM radio and even the NOAA radio, when we talked to weather service, they said that the county asked them to put out a message over NOAA radio because of a shutdown. Uh, they would, that’s what the Noah radio is for. And most of your boaters, uh, are involved in, uh, with the NOAA radio. But, uh, there are some very inexpensive tools that people can have that would, we’d be able to reach out to. So, uh, going back to the AM FM primary stations for, uh, for learning, uh, and updating people, what’s going on to the NOAA radio. That’s probably one of the biggest things to step back a little bit too in technology and try to get people notified that you saw that in some of the fires where people said they had no, no warnings.

Michael Cockrell:              They didn’t get the message because they were out of that high technology area. So we have to just keep using these events to keep sending out of that basic message on preparedness. But throw in the uniqueness of preparedness for like these power outages. You’re not running out of the home down to a shelter unless you need to go there. because they are providing help. That’s the other thing that the emergency managers could do is find out those facilities. They would allow people to come in, whether it’s a cooling center or, or a warming center. All you can provide food, water, it does it have power and make sure people know where they can go. The other thing that emergency managers can consider in their planning, as we did in the San Joaquin County during these heat and freezes is provide maybe a bus shuttle system where people who get on the bus and go to somewhere where they can get some assistance if one city or county doesn’t have enough budget for that.

Michael Cockrell:              Maybe there’s a way of sharing community these can share together to try to meet the needs, of the communities. The other thing we saw during the heat of emergencies of 2006 and 2013 is, people on fixed incomes were unwilling to turn on their air conditioners. Well, if there’s a power outage, obviously they’re not going to have that point, but people may be, will unwilling to leave their homes. So emergency managers need to decide how are we going to protect these areas and how do we tell people what will be how the law enforcement is going to handle security in their areas if they did decide to leave. And that was one of the things we saw in that 96 outages. People worried about civil unrest and theft. If there’s no power.

Todd De Voe:     When we look at these plans and what we’re doing specifically for our residents, right. And going out there and giving them great information regarding here you can go here for cooling centers, you can go here for food and water if you need to, you might lose power for, a few hours up to a few days. We’re asking you to do all this like crazy preparedness stuff that we haven’t asked people to do in the past.

Michael Cockrell:              Well yeah. Well some of the items that they should be prepared for, we have your round tried to give, asked them to prepare using campaigns that are established. Again, like earthquake preparedness, flood preparedness, winter preparedness, summer preparedness, but what we’re doing here is trying to tell the people how to be prepared for a specific threat. That’s a power shot off

Todd De Voe:     on the, on the safety side, do you recommend doing like we would do windshield surveys, you know, or who’s doing what. I mean, if we have people running generators like we’re talking about is the fact that they might have, gases going into their homes or potentially fires that are starting because of this, should we be doing more proactive, sweeps of our community or is that overkill?

Michael Cockrell:              Not really. One of our communities, cities in San Joaquin County that’s precisely in their plans. And that also was one issue we addressed Y2K is utilizing a security company, volunteers, callback firefighters, and law enforcement to go out and extend those patrols and watch for specific things. Now we just went through 4th of July, all of these cities, and counties who are putting up drones and going out looking for illegal fireworks use. So it’s almost the same approach. You’re calling out, and you’re looking in your communities, and you know, the areas that there may be low income or places that, people are more shut-ins, that a is a targeted area, to enhance your awareness. the same city and a couple of other cities are doing the same thing. They’re asking people to call in their name and phone number and address so that they can go out and check on them to see how they’re doing.

Todd De Voe:     Well, that’s great. I’m glad that we have, some of us are being proactive in there, and I think that the rest of us should start thinking that way. So we’re getting closer to the end, and before I let you go, there’s a couple of harder questions. I guess not too hard is if somebody is looking for more information specifically on what you’re doing with your outreach and your, um, your videos, how can they find you?

Michael Cockrell:              Well, since I’m retired from San Joaquin County emergency services about a year and a half ago. so Soundings Magazine is an online magazine. It’s free. You can go on and, you don’t have to, to pay to view our videos. So, it’s Soundings as in navigation, taking soundings of your water depth www.soundingsmag.net and part, one of the power safety shutoffs is, is online now. And we’re just getting ready to put on part two, and we’re hoping this weekend or early part of the next week. And now we’re looking at part three because of this situation on this shutoff, on evacuations and securing areas. Any event that is a power shut off. So soundingsmag.net and there’s a list of links there that you can go and view and get more information.

Todd De Voe:     Like I said, well we’ll have it, posted in the show notes here. So if you guys are driving down the road or your pencil is not sharp right now, no fret. Go to the show notes and go ahead and click on that link and it will get you over there. I highly recommend watching that video. Number one. It was really well done. Like I said before, it’s entertaining and educational. I would recommend you all putting that link on your local emergency management, webpage for people to get more information regarding this. Because like I said, well done, well-produced and as I said, I had recommended it.

Michael Cockrell:              I like to make one comment, from all the town hall meetings, they talked about, with the attendees. People really want to know what is the government going to do to help them. And I’ve seen several, fire chiefs and law enforcement and Operations people struggle with that. You know, it’s, you can’t just say you’re on your own, but you have to really make sure they know what, how you’re planning to help them. Is it going to be local patrols? Is can they call in and leave their name and address, to make sure they know that they’re going to get their warning from either AM/FM radio, their cell phone and that they sign up with their power company. to try to get an immediate, ordering. Also the, again, most, some counties and cities have their own code red or, alert or something like that, to sign up. So they, but that’s what they want. Do they want to know what are you going to do to help us? And that could be costly.

Todd De Voe:     That’s that is for sure on the cost side of it. So Michael, what book, books, or publication do you recommend to people that are getting into emergency management?

Michael Cockrell:              Well, one of them is old that it was when I first started emergency management in 1982, I went down to the state training center, and I did a heck of it. I sign up for public information, a session, and the instructor at the time, he recommended the book. And even though the techniques of media have changed, that the basics in there are still important. Just a newer edition, but it’s called How to Speak TV, Print and Radio. And the off there was Clarence Jones, and I happen to have the third edition. I understand there are newer ones, but it really does talk about, if the media or the public looks at you as the villain, it’s how hard it is to get out of that. The different techniques that media you use to, to understand what your point is.

Michael Cockrell:              And, and it really, what it made me think about is that you know, we’re really blessed to be the advocate to help the media get the information. And that’s mainly what they want to do. They want to know the truth and, and what you’re doing, uh, so that they can put out their story. The other one is called a Paradise Built in Hell. And as by Rebecca Solnit, and personally, I liked it because one, goes to different disasters, whether it’s the Halifax ship explosion or one Katrina, Rita, hurricanes, and it talks about what happened and how did that community try to recover. How did they use resilience to do better? It’s just a really, really wonderful book. And it actually was a New York Times book review. selection and those are probably the two best books, uh, other than Cadillac desert. Which deals with southern California, water wars. That’s probably my third best one that I’ll always cherish. And that was, the author was a Mark Reisner on that one.

Todd De Voe:     I like Cadillac Desert is a great book. It’s even if you’re not in southern California; it’s well written and very entertaining. And educational, again on the water issues that we have here in southern California.

Michael Cockrell:              And he discusses the dam collapse that wiped out that a small community college down below it, but I know he has the second issue that, but the first volume, the original one is, it’s still just a classic

Todd De Voe:     great, great books right there. If you could say one thing to the emergency manager, what would it be?

Michael Cockrell:              I would say just, you know, keep your communities informed and never, never show a mistrust. You know, if you, once you lose your credibility, you will never gain it back.

Todd De Voe:     Wise words right there. Thank you so much for your time today.

Michael Cockrell:              Alright, thank you.

Links

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michael-cockrell-291a4967/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/soundingsmag/

Website: https://soundingsmag.net/

Video: https://soundingsmag.net/2019/07/11/surviving-the-pge-power-shutdowns-part-1/

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